The Kiese Laymon Book Club: Part Three
*TW: The following story addresses issues and themes that may be triggering to some readers. Domestic violence is mentioned in some parts of this post. If you feel affected by any issues mentioned, please seek help; we have attached useful resources at the bottom of this post.
because of James
I originally intended to revise the following words and present them to you as the foundation for my response to Dr. Harris’s call to speak with you about the statement,
Black Men Matter because Black Women Matter.
Even though I had not read this essay since I wrote it in April of 2010, I presented this essay at two conferences, one of which the panel in which the paper was a part of was selected for a spotlight session at the Curriculum Camp of Louisiana State University of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I remember this paper being lauded for being an exceptional analysis of the process of conscientization that Paulo Freire wrote of in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. However, when I opened this essay and re-read it, I realized there were several things missing from this piece. What follows is a presentation of the narrative portion of this essay in its original format. Except for grammatical and spelling corrections, I have not made any changes to this essay. I will give you my critique of myself and this essay at its conclusion.
Conscientization on a Midnight Train to Georgia
9:00 am -- Indifference
Taking the train from New Orleans, Louisiana to Atlanta, Georgia while economical was definitely not the fastest way to travel. As a born-again full time Ph.D. student, an expensive, last minute plane ticket was not an option, so I found myself at Union Station in New Orleans at 6:00 in the morning waiting to board the Crescent City Connection for a 12 hour ride home for Easter break.
About an hour into the ride, I had settled into my seat, had my iPod cranked up, was reading an article on my blackberry, and was contemplating whether I would have breakfast or lunch in the dining car. I thought to myself, “It’s not the plane, but at least it’ll be a relaxing trip.” As soon as the thought was completed in my head, I saw a young, Black, male, wandering up and down the aisle. He had recently gotten on the train and was looking for a seat. I was one of the few single passengers left in the car and I immediately began praying that he would find a seat somewhere else. He didn’t. He disrupted my comfort zone. And, he smelled bad. My next prayer was that he was getting off at the next stop because I didn’t see him with any luggage. The answer to that prayer came when he asked me what time we would get into Atlanta. I was miserable. He had been on the train for all of fifteen minutes the first time he asked me for the time, again. I wished he would go away. I turned the volume up on my iPod, scooted as close to the window as could, discreetly covered my nose, and hoped that he got the message.
Then, I heard the angry voice of my conscience. “Really, Berlisha…Are you serious? Not you, not Miss Social Justice. You’ve spent hours in classrooms studying and debating the ills of the Black community, you’ve worked on policies on a statewide level to improve the lives of at-risk young people, and, as a matter of fact, you sat in class last week and said that academicians don’t know how to put theory into practice, and you don’t want to take your water out of your bag because you don’t want to share?”
My conscience continued its rant. “You know the literature. You’ve done Juvenile Justice Policy. You know this boy is probably getting out of a group home or a shelter. You know the poverty literature. You know if he hasn’t bathed, he probably hasn’t eaten while you’re about to eat a big meal in the overpriced dining car.” Then my conscience dealt its final blow. “So, you can talk about it in class, you can drop Christmas presents off at the young men’s shelter; but when the literature comes and sits down next to you, you can’t deal with it.” The next time the young man asked me for time, I replied with a smile. I then asked,
“So what brings you to Atlanta?” He quickly replied,
“Court.” He took a breath and asked again,
“What time are we supposed to get to Atlanta?” I said,
“7:30 if we keep on schedule.” He shook his head and said,
“And it’s only 10:30? We have a long way to go.”
He could not have been more right. For the purpose of this paper, let’s call him Jesse.
11:30 am Sympathy
Jesse’s story is classic. Jesse, at 19 years old, is the father of a one-year old son and the holder of two aggravated robbery and assault charges in Georgia and Mississippi. Jesse is a high school dropout and does not have a positive relationship with his son’s mother. The more of his story he shared, the sorrier I felt for him. I shared my water and snacks and he shared that he didn’t meet his father until he was fifteen. I felt even worse when he relayed the details of his criminal charges in which was another classic story of being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the people. He couldn’t afford legal representation so he was hoping that the weak evidence would not end up in court. I decided to pull out my water and crackers, and when I offered, he readily accepted. We chatted a little more when I became sleepy and settled in for a nap. I was content that I offered the poor boy some nourishment and felt very positive about myself as I drifted off to sleep. Before the sleep overtook, my conscience whispered, “Berlisha, so you gave this boy 5 Wheat Thins and an 8 ounce bottle of water, listened to him talk for an hour, and you honestly believe that you can hold your title as a progressive black female that gets the plight of poor black people…wow.” My nap wasn’t as peaceful as I had planned.
2:00 pm Empathy
I awoke from my nap to find Jesse gazing happily out the window. Our round of questions picked back up. Jesse was born and raised in the 9th ward of New Orleans. Jesse’s family evacuated to Atlanta where they stayed after the storm. Of course, my first line of thought was, “He was lucky to get out of the slums of New Orleans to get to the great public schools in Atlanta.” What he said next shocked me,
“I hated it.”
“Why?” I asked.
“The scenery was so unfamiliar.” He pointed out the window.
“Look at that out there. It doesn’t look like New Orleans. I was used to the flatness of New Orleans…all those hills were strange to me.”
As he told me about the high school he was supposed to go to in New Orleans, I thought back years to being an 18-year-old in Baton Rouge for my first fall. I remember I hated the scenery. Even though my school sat at one of the most beautiful views of the Mississippi River, I thought I was in the most horrid place. It was always green. There was no grass, just sand. The places that had lawns looked too manicured and artificial. I missed home where the leaves changed into vivid splashes of orange and yellow and red letting you know that fall is here and winter soon to follow. But when it was always green, it felt like time stood still. And I wanted to go back home to what was familiar.
At that point, I no longer felt sorry for Jesse. I found a common connection with Jesse. I was able to empathize with him. We were from different socioeconomic backgrounds, we were 10 years apart in age, he was male and I was female, but in that space where we were sharing stories about scenery, we were two black kids trying to adapt to our environment. I successfully adapted to Baton Rouge. Jesse did not successfully adapt to Atlanta.
That’s when I finally realized the connection between the literature and Jesse. Even though I was female, I was still his black big sister. It was my role to share my story, my successes, my failures, my dreams, and my ambitions so that he could see the communality in our existence and hopefully find a way out of his situation. I then went to go buy Jesse and I lunch not because I felt sorry for him, but because we were both two hungry black kids on a train to Atlanta and I wanted to share.
5:00 pm Action
“What do you wanna be Jesse?”
“A chef, a car painter, a good father.”
“You can still do all of that.”
In exchange for lunch, Jesse offered to carry my bag off the train. He didn’t have a ride home, so my brother offered to take him home. My parting words to Jesse were, “Keep your life together.” I know that I will never see Jesse again. Jesse should have been traveling to visit family on his Easter break from college and not traveling to court. I know that I thought I knew the literature until the literature came and sat next to me, and I realized I knew nothing. Why was someone like me – an advocate, a policy maker, an intellectual – so ready to dismiss Jesse?
*After reading this essay, I had to go back and check the timeline of these events against the timeline in which I wrote and presented this essay. There are the obvious ooches and ouches like me calling Jesse's story “classic,” my referring to myself as a “female,” and me calling the 9th Ward of the New Orleans “the slums.” Of course, the constant and consistent questioning of my role in Black men’s lives was there. But I was more shocked about what was not there. The Easter of 2010 that I was travelling home for was the first time that I would be home since my father moved out of our house. The last time I saw my father in our house, he told me that of the many reasons he was leaving, the main one was because for his entire adult life, he had been a husband and a father; he never had a chance to find out who Ralph was. I understood what he said, but I was having trouble numbing the pain of knowing that being my father and living with my mother was not enough. The food and alcohol I used to numb the pain was turning me into a person I did not recognize, and my weight-gain was another failure I had to contend along with my other failures of womanhood. I was broke because I could not afford a plane ticket with my graduate assistant salary and my then husband made sure I paid the price for choosing to go back to school to get my doctorate and not fully committing to my role in his story of heterosexual bliss. The January before this Easter, my then husband threw me against the door of our linen closet, and then threw me on the bed and punched my legs with all his might because I asked where he was that morning.
That morning, I was perfect. I got up early to make homemade hamburgers -- ground beef and turkey -- to take to the parade on the West Bank of Baton Rouge to celebrate their hometown hero’s role in the Saint’s Super Bowl Victory. I did not ask questions when he left the house before day for an errand that was none of my business. He was late getting back from this errand that was none of my business which was going to make us late getting across the river to impress his co-workers with his amazing homemade hamburgers. I just asked where he was. I just wanted to know why we were going to be late. I may have deserved everything else he did to me – I was too fat, too mouthy, too ambitious, and too unpregnant – but I did not understand it that time because I was perfect that morning. I was on that train trying to figure out how to be even less curious and even more frugal while I did my course work in the Educational Leadership and Research doctoral program at Louisiana State University of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. That week I got back from that trip home; Brad left me. Three months later when I wrote this paper, I had a new role in Brad’s narrative; I was the too mouthy, too ambitious, too unpregnant jezebel slut, and he had a new pregnant leading woman that let him be the leading man in his story of heterosexual bliss. I let people believe that story because that story was easier to live with than the truth.
That day with Jesse on the train was a beautiful day in my life, and I wanted to write about that day and what talking with Jesse meant to me. How talking with Jesse made me want to write again, and I had not wanted to write in years. But it was easier to use Jesse’s story to sanitize my life and essentially admonish myself for not being a better Black woman to the Black men in my life. What brought me to that train did not matter and what happened when I got off the train that brought me back to Louisiana did not matter. In narrativizing Jesse as the quintessential troubled young Black man, and myself as Jesse’s reluctant, yet redeemed Black big sister-mother, my father and then husband were protected as eternal good Black men. I created a backstory for Jesse’s backstory rooted in palatable fantasies of Blackness. That essay was not a complex exploration of conscientization; it was magic. With my words, I turned myself into one of the good Black women that took off from work to bring extra decorations and cupcakes for parties. I was not DeShawn’s mama. I was not a mess. I was not abused. I was not too aggressive. I was not too mouthy. I was not too smart. I was not too un-pregnant. I instead, bought young troubled Black men lunch on trains. I protected the good Black men with jobs from the prying eyes of academia while making good Black people and good white people feel good about me admonishing myself for not being the best Black woman I could be for a young man on a train looking for somewhere to sit. I was a good Black woman.
But did people really want to know the real reason I let Jesse sit next to me on the train was because we caught eyes. And when we caught eyes, I saw the same look in Jesse’s eyes that I saw in DeShawn’s eyes when I interrupted his joy of eating one half of an almost stale Krispy Kreme donut. And that was the same look I saw looking back at me in my reflection from the windows of the train. I wanted to sit by myself because I wanted twelve hours of sweet peace in the chaos that was my life. And I offered that scared and lonely Black boy a seat next to me because I was a scared and lonely Black girl, and I did not want to be scared, lonely alone. I split the little bit of lunch money I had with him because I knew what it felt like to be hungry. I connected with him because his name was James, same as my brother. I liked talking to him because he was funny, had full lips, and had an easy smile. He was beautiful. How did I become such an unreliable narrator of my life?
The final part of The Kiese Laymon Book Club will be out next Wednesday.
The Writer Behind the Writing
Dr. Berlisha R. Morton
Berlisha R. Morton is an intellectual activist, performance artist and afrofuturista who studies and performs Blackness. She received her doctorate from Louisiana State University and her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Southern University and A&M College, an Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her scholarship has appeared in the Encyclopedia of African American Education, The Western Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, the Gender and Education journal and in edited volumes on African American students’ college readiness and Black women’s educational philosophy. She wrote and produced a one act play, Utterances: An Afrofuturistic Ghost Story. Her scholarship and art are driven by a desire to acknowledge the intellectual and spiritual contributions of women like her grandmother and great-aunt – lifelong domestic workers who had little formal education— to literary and educational canons.
Victim Support (UK)
Safe Horizon (US)
Sistah Space (UK)